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Big Isle must face economic threats


    Hawaii island is bearing the brunt of a dip in tourism that has resulted from three months of headlines about its historic Kilauea volcanic eruption.

As a tourism destination, Hawaii always enjoyed its cachet as an exotic location that’s safe and comfortable for visitors.

It’s a cachet that the islands have earned. It is safe here, and the state’s myriad attractions — its natural beauty, its cultural richness, its relaxed and friendly demeanor — have delighted the millions who make the trip each year.

None of that’s changed, or it shouldn’t have. But plainly a combination of natural disasters has disseminated news and images that surely tarnish the image. And that won’t be overcome without a considerable effort — by leaders of the industry, government leaders and just regular folks — to bolster its health.

First Kauai was flooded in torrential rains in April that washed out the coastal Kuhio Highway, all but cutting off the north shore.

But it’s plainly Hawaii island that’s bearing the brunt of a dip in tourism that has resulted from three months of headlines about its historic Kilauea volcanic eruption.

Many residents statewide have heard from friends living elsewhere who ask with concern whether they are OK. As monumental as volcanic activity is, it doesn’t mean that other parts of the Big Island, and other islands altogether, can’t offer a fun vacation. Media tales of fiery “lava bombs” tend to stick in the mind; the reality of geography doesn’t.

And just last week, Hurricane Hector hovered off island and left without incident; still, the little reminder of seasonal weather upheavals isn’t that helpful.

The economic impact is already being felt. Hawaii island lost 100 hospitality and leisure jobs between May and June. Honolulu Star-Advertiser tourism writer Allison Schaefers, tracking the trends, reported last week that the potential for 38,000 visitors and $50 million in tourism dollars were lost over those same two months.

These cold statistics stand in for real people whose local livelihoods and quality of life could be imperiled. Schaefers interviewed a number of them, including Mimi Bergstrom who quit her tourism job because the downturn cut into her hours.

The statewide tourism metrics have been encouraging for some time, but these blinking hazard lights from the Big Island should not be ignored. If nothing is done to turn the tide, the collateral damage to the economy, and the workforce it supports, could worsen.

From a national or even global perspective, economists are starting to weigh the risk of recession, which, given the cyclical nature of these things, is inevitable. What Hawaii doesn’t want to do is delay taking its proactive steps until the “perfect storm” arrives, and a slow economy starts keeping more travelers at home.

More locally, Hawaii County is anticipating a big hit to the local economy, and to its tax coffers. Mayor Harry Kim stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest last week when he floated a request for up to $600 million in state aid to his county. Mostly the upset among state lawmakers was over the political calculation to pitch the idea first to the governor rather than to legislative leadership.

But Kim will have to make a case for a half-billion dollars, laying out how it should be spent in the island’s recovery, before the Legislature makes any serious moves.

At least some of the money is needed for marketing, national and international advertising and outreach with messaging about what Hawaii has to offer. This will be a job that falls, in part, to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, but it doesn’t end there.

The private sector, including various consortia or business groups across the visitor industry, needs to join in with the mission. Some of them are already at work.

Example: The Kohala Coast Resort Association has recognized that the current public perception of a Hawaii vacation — dominated by images of lava, destruction and poor air quality — needs correction. It is launching an informational campaign, titled “Hawaii Island, Bigger than You Know.”

Campaign organizers said they aim to highlight the distances between the trouble spots and the hotels and destination points, and the prevailing good weather and activities that await the visitor to the Big Island.

Further, now would be a good time for kamaaina discounts and “staycation” deals, prompting Hawaii residents to book a short Hawaii holiday, to the southernmost island in particular, and support the local economy. Cheaper airfares would be a start, but the marketing imperative belongs to everyone, from large hotels to B&Bs and small-scale tour providers. The visitor industry no longer remains the sole domain of major-league players.

Granted, all of the islands are too reliant on tourism, which is why economic diversification is a perennial theme resonating in state and county planning offices. The Big Island’s doldrums serve as a reminder that other sectors, such as its productive ranching and agricultural businesses, deserve attention.

But now and for the foreseeable future, tourism is king. Leaders need to amplify the message: Hawaii is open for business.

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